“I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
As if you could hide the truth about this, surely destined to be one of the shows of the year. Benedict Andrews’ thoughtful updating of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire makes it seem like the play has always lived in this era and these characters always as freshly vibrant as they are here. The work of Gillian Anderson, Vanessa Kirby and Ben Foster as Blanche, Stella and Stanley is extraordinarily done – the disturbing sheen of sexual violence a tangible and thoroughly believable threat throughout as Andrews pulls no punches in showing us how brutal this world is.
There’s no escaping it either as Magda Willi’s framelike design constantly revolves in front of us as we’re sat in the round. This choice works on so many levels – the dizzying descent that characterises Blanche’s downfall, the relentless passage of time, the voyeurism it provokes from the audience as we crane to see what it sometimes hidden from view (just like the passive neighbours in the New Orleans neighbourhood). It’s not always easy or comfortable but given what we’re watching, why the hell should we be?!
A punchily modern soundtrack adds to the freshly modern aesthetic but it is the performances that Andrews teases out of his cast that really elevate the production. Kirby makes something almost entirely new out of Stella which is just fantastic, an earthly woman full of sexual need and emotional wants, her seductive presence is a surprise and a success, reinventing the role in an unforgettable manner. And so it is no surprise that Ben Foster’s tattooed ex-con can’t contain himself, brimming with (possibly PTSD-inspired) anger and fury and yes, a raw sexuality.
Then there’s Gillian Anderson, ascending to the role she’s waited years to fulfil with a near-impossible grace and gentility. Though she brings her own vein of fragile charm and charisma, we’re left in no uncertain terms how thoroughly delusional she becomes as the mask of her faded glamour slowly but surely slips into a world of frenzied neurosis. And just when you think the show is finally over after three glorious hours, there comes a final sequence that is just one of the most emotionally punishing ever, a slow walk round and off the stage with her gaze searching into every audience member. Unmissable stuff.